20 January 2006



01/20/06 08:58 EST

More than 3,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland are to be re-examined as part of a GBP £30 million ($52 million) specialist police team looking into the past, it emerged today.

Dave Cox, who is heading the Historical Enquiries Team, said his officers would reopen the files on 3,268 cases during the Troubles and would try and achieve the best resolution for victims` families.

But nationalist victims` groups An Fhirinne said the families of people killed as a result of collusion between loyalists and the security forces doubted the enquiry team could ever get to the truth of what happened to their relatives.

"We believe our relatives were murdered by British agents, including members of RUC/PSNI Special Branch," said spokesman Robert McClenaghan.

"Those RUC/PSNI members who organised, equipped and ran the unionist death squads are now being asked to furnish the HET with information, evidence and witnesses about hundreds of unsolved murders they themselves were involved in."

"Those accused of murder are being asked to reinvestigate themselves. That is why the HET will fail to get to the truth about collusion. Only an independent, international inquiry will have the authority and confidence of victims` families to get to the truth about collusion and State murder."

But Mr Cox claimed a number of republican victims` groups had already engaged with his team.

"We have met a number of republican families and, through the good offices of some of the non-governmental organisations who represent them and their solicitors, we have spoken to them," he said.

"We have established, I think, a good rapport in certain cases. There are always going to be people who won`t trust us. It is our job to try and build that trust and hopefully the examples of cases where it has worked will lead other families to come forward."

Sinn Fein`s victims spokesman Philip McGuigan and Mark Thompson, of the nationalist victims` group Relatives for Justice, also voiced doubts about the Historical Enquiries Team.

Mr McGuigan, an Assembly member for North Antrim, argued: "However much this scheme is dressed up, it is still an internal unit of the PSNI, and is very much the case of the state investigating the state."

"The PSNI record to date in cases of state murder has been one of cover-up and concealment."

Mr McGuigan said his community was also hugely sceptical of the British Government`s commitment to truth, justice or dealing with the past, and the HET did nothing to address that.

Mr Thompson said the HET was a limited police and criminal justice initiative aimed at addressing the past in absence of a proper non-punitive truth recovery process.

"It will, by definition, not address the nature, causes and extent of the conflict," he said.

"The fact that it is a police investigation may prove problematic in the long-term with possible prosecutions. But, more importantly, the very same institutions that were at the heart of the conflict as protagonists are undertaking this initiative and are answerable to Peter Hain. It is not independent. As a result, we fail to see how such an approach can be compatible with international human rights investigative standards, in particular Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998," Mr. Thompson said.

A total of £24.3 million has been ring fenced for the police unit and a further £7.3 million for forensic scientists using modern techniques to help solve the cold cases.

The Historical Enquiries Team will begin its work on Monday, focusing on an initial batch of 100 cases and are examining all the unsolved murders in chronological order. The first case dates back to April 1969.

Mr Cox, a former retired Metropolitan Police commander, said: "I do not for a moment underestimate the complexity of this challenge or the potential emotional stress for relatives associated with revisiting these tragic events. That is why families will sit at the very heart of our investigations and that is why our primary objective will be to work with them to achieve some measure of resolution for them."

Originally it had been estimated that there were 2,000 unsolved murders.

However, the enquiries team are looking into 3,268 deaths because while in some cases one person may have been convicted, there are other suspects who avoided arrest.

Families will be consulted by the team on whether they want to proceed with the prosecutions or if there can be any other form of resolution.

A total of 84 staff have been recruited.

Retired police officers formally in the Royal Ulster Constabulary will be involved as well as a mixture of retired and seconded officers from English, Scottish and Welsh forces.

A helpdesk will be operational at the team`s Sprucefield headquarters outside Lisburn for families.

The idea of the historical enquiries team was first floated by Northern Ireland Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde in September 2004.

Mr Cox said that when a family wanted a prosecution and the evidence existed, the team would pursue it in the courts.

SDLP policing spokesperson Alex Attwood claimed the Historical Enquiries Team, which hopes to clear its list of cold cases within six years, was a brave initiative and a good idea.

"The HET is a big initiative - it will be judged and should judge itself on whether it, without fear or favor, looks at all killings - loyalist, republican and state," the West Belfast Assembly member said.

"The SDLP hope the leadership of the HET will do this. We believe it will. The HET has a strong leadership and procedures and must ensure that all agencies, particularly the British Army, comply or are forced to comply with its investigations. Unlike the Hain/Adams attempt to bury the past through the on-the-run/state killers proposals, the HET attempts to tell the truth, identify those responsible for deaths and help bring closure and healing."

"These are the right principles to deal with the past - not the shoddy approach of Hain/Adams."

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said the launch of the team was an important step towards a new future in the North.

"We will never forget those who lost their lives as a result of the Troubles," he insisted.

"Nor will we forget those who continue to mourn these losses and who have to live with the consequences on a daily basis. The Government, through the provision of additional funding to set up the Historical Enquiries Team, is committed to addressing unanswered questions for as many families of victims as possible."

"I do not under-estimate the challenges that lie ahead for the team in investigating this complex and sensitive work. I believe the efforts in meeting these challenges will be of vital importance as we continue to move the peace process forward and assist those who have been most directly affected to reach some understanding and closure on the past."

Irwin Montgommery, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, also welcomed the launch of the review team and hoped for progress on unsolved cases.

"While our expectation of what the review will achieve has to be tempered with the realism of impact of the passage of time and the unavailability for one reason or another of witnesses, the review team`s work is a clear signal that crime cannot be allowed to go unacknowledged even if, at times, it will be inadequately punished," he said.

"DNA may uncover new evidence and witnesses may feel more secure about coming forward. I hope that those who think that they have got away with past atrocities will now start to look over their shoulders and realise that justice may catch up with them after all."

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